The Jigsaw Puzzle

by Pink Panther

Chapter 8

October 2007

I stand outside the changing rooms in a sort of daze. Being dumped by Mark and Andrew hurts far worse than anything Zav could have done. Part of me wants to lock myself in the toilets and burst into tears. Well stuff that! I'm not just upset; I'm angry. What they're doing isn't right. I don't understand why they're making such a fuss. Sure, Mr Broadhurst wanted to speak to them, but they weren't in trouble, so what was the problem?

Eventually, I make my way out of school. As usual, Rebecca, Jane and Louise are standing by the gate, chatting. I walk right past them. I don't want to talk to them at the moment; it would just make things worse. Right now, I need to get my head sorted. With a few minutes to kill, I wander aimlessly in the direction of the town centre. My brain's totally scrambled. It's not just about Mark and Andrew. There's that business with Mr Saunders perving on me in the store room. I don't know what to think about that.

Mr Saunders isn't the Head of Physical Education. That's Mr Lenham, known as Lenny, who's about forty. Mr Saunders is in his mid-twenties and definitely fit. Would I go with him? The thing is he's around twice my age. I'm not sure I'd want to. More than that, he's one of my teachers.

It's partly my fault, of course. I shouldn't have let him see me getting a hard-on. That was stupid. So would I go with him if he asked me? I really, honestly don't know. My conscience reminds me that I did come on to Mr Ashton.

I check my watch. It's one minute to four. I take a deep breath and stride purposefully towards Anthony's house. I walk up the path and ring the bell. Anthony bounds down the stairs to open the door. He ushers me into his bedroom.

"Are you okay?" he asks, sitting next to me on the bed.

"Broadhurst's been on the warpath," I say. "He's been asking everyone about what was going on with me and Zav. He spoke to Mark and Andrew about it, you know, the kids I was at junior school with. They got in a right huff. They told me just now that they're not going to hang out with me anymore. They said they won't even speak to me, like it was all my fault."

"Broadhurst must have given them a bollocking," Anthony says.

"Why?" I demand. "They hadn't done anything."

"They're supposed to be your mates, aren't they?" Anthony suggests.

"Yeah," I confirm.

"He'd have had a go at them for not standing up for you," Anthony asserts.

The penny finally drops. That's what this is about. It makes total sense. Mark and Andrew hate getting told off, Andrew especially. I can imagine Mr Broadhurst doing it too. I just hadn't thought about it. They got a bollocking they think they didn't deserve, so they're taking it out on me. Nice!

"If they'd stood up for you straight away, none of this would have happened," Anthony continues. "That Stanford kid acts like he's hard, but he's all show. He wouldn't even take me on, and I'm way smaller than he is."

He might have added that Zav was only picking on me because he knew I was scared of him. I'm pleased he didn't. I already know that.

"Matthew says he'd have got battered if he had," I say.

"Maybe," Anthony says, grinning. "He'd have known he'd been in a fight, that's for sure!" He pauses for a moment. "So why didn't your so-called friends stick up for you?" he queries.

I answer with a shrug.

"Come on, you know why," Anthony says pointedly. "They didn't stick up for you because they were afraid the other kids might think they were gay. It's pathetic!"

"Yeah, I guess," I concede.

"Well, you need to get over them," he says firmly. "They're not real friends. If you ask me, you're better off without them."

He's right, of course. They've dumped me and I do need to get over them. They've been uncomfortable with me being gay since the day Zav first had a go at me. Sure, they didn't give him my mobile number, but they'd never have stood up for me the way that Anthony did.

"One thing I don't understand," I say. "When we came in from break yesterday, someone asked Zav if Martine was his girlfriend. Some of the other kids started sniggering. I don't get it. Martine's really nice."

"She's a scissor sister," Anthony says.

"What?" I demand, more confused than ever.

"Sorry," Anthony replies, grinning again. "You like the band Scissor Sisters. I thought you'd understand the name. We like boys, yeah? Well Martine likes girls. When we do it, it's called a sixty-nine. When girls do it, they're being scissor sisters."

"Wow!" I breathe. "I had no idea. D'you think Claire knows?"

"Probably," Anthony says casually. "She's pretty smart. She knows you're gay, doesn't she?"

"Yeah," I concede. "D'you think I ought to talk to her about . . . , you know?"

"No way!" Anthony says emphatically. "It's not your business and I didn't tell you."

"Sorry," I say meekly, "I wasn't thinking."

"Don't worry about it," Anthony says quietly, putting his arm round my shoulder, his other hand running along my thigh. "I think it's time for me to make you feel better."

It works too. Half an hour later I'm on my way home, feeling almost like my usual self. Anthony's amazing. As long as I've got him, I can get through anything.

It's Monday morning. It's not just Mark and Andrew who aren't talking to me. Around half of the other kids aren't either. I hadn't expected it and it's not a nice feeling. It's like the class has been split into 'them and us'.

The 'anti' group seems to be focussed around Amanda and Sophie. I can't say that's a surprise. They're being spiteful because Zav got into trouble. But I'm disappointed that Mark, Andrew and some of the other kids have gone along with them. I haven't done anything wrong, so what's their problem? I guess they don't like me being gay, and that hurts.

But one kid who definitely isn't in the 'anti'group is Smudger. When Amanda had a go at him for talking to me, he told her to go fuck herself. You should have seen her face! Rebecca, Jane and Louise thought it was hilarious.

I already knew that Smudger didn't like Zav. It seems he hasn't much time for the rest of that gang either. I can't see us ever being close, but he's definitely on my side. Right now, I'll settle for that.

As I head out to morning break, Dean's waiting for me.

"May I have a word, please," he asks, looking very nervous.

"Sure," I say, rather taken aback.

"I just want to say I'm sorry for what happened," he says. "Zav was out of order, picking on you like that. I should have stopped him."

"You did tell him to stop," I remind him.

"Yeah, and a lot of good that did," he says. "I'm bigger and stronger than him. I could have stopped him but I bottled it. I'm sorry."

"Thanks," I say quietly. "So what happens when he comes back to school?"

"We won't be friends anymore," he says. "After what he did I don't care if I never speak to him again."

"Oh, right," I say guardedly. "Well, it wasn't your fault. You never actually helped him."

"Thanks," he says, giving me a weak smile.

We go our separate ways. I'm pleased that he's apologised. For a start, it's one more person that'll talk to me. But I'm cautious. Zav had Dean under his thumb. I don't think he'll let him go that easily.

Mrs Vickers has had a bollocking. Nobody's said anything, but it's obvious that she has. For a start, she arrives bang on time for afternoon registration, not looking at all happy. Then, after she's called the register, she goes around checking our homework diaries and making sure we have our school uniform on properly, all the things she's supposed to do but doesn't usually bother with. It'll be interesting to see how long she keeps it up.

It's Wednesday and Zav's back at school. Mrs Vickers has just finished calling the register when Mr Broadhurst comes in with a kid from Mr Harrison's registration group. I'm pretty sure I know where this is going. We sit in total silence. We always do when Mr Broadhurst comes in. He looks around, his eyes boring right into us.

"I'll keep this brief," he says curtly. "As some of you will be aware, Xavier Stanford has returned to school. In view of the problems that have occurred, he has been re-allocated to Mr Harrison's group. This is Stephen Price, who is moving the other way. I'm sure that you will make him welcome."

He indicates the vacant seat next to Dean. Stephen sits in it. Mr Broadhurst takes a final look around the room and leaves. So Zav has been moved to Mr Harrison's group. Mr Harrison teaches science, physics mainly. We don't have him this year, but he taught us last year and he is rock! You can't even breathe out of turn in his classes. And the kids in his registration group reckon they can't even sneeze without him finding out about it. Zav's not going to like that. I don't think Mrs Vickers will be too happy either. Zav was her star student. She won't like losing him.

I don't really know Stephen. I guess they had to move someone the other way. I wonder why they picked him. When some of the other kids ask, he says it's because Mr Harrison doesn't like him. I'm immediately suspicious. Even if it's true, why doesn't Mr Harrison like him? There's more to this than he's saying. Until I find out the proper story, I'll need to be on my guard.

There's been an almighty bust-up between Zav and Dean. I wasn't there when it kicked off, but apparently things got very heated. They didn't actually come to blows, but Zav was screaming at Dean, calling him a traitor and saying that they'd never have got into trouble if Dean had backed him up properly, all that sort of shit. Good as his word, Dean told him to fuck off.

The upshot is that they're no longer speaking to each other. I'm delighted. Despite what happened, Dean's always seemed okay to me. But he needed to get away from Zav, and now he's done it.

Friday morning, we're in the classroom early waiting for registration. Stephen Price comes across to speak to Matthew.

"What are you talking to him for?" he demands in his very posh voice, jerking his head in my direction.

Matthew sits back in his chair, his arms folded.

"I'm talking to him because I want to talk to him," he says evenly, eyeing Stephen up and down. "And I don't need you or anyone else in here telling me who I can or can't talk to. Have you got a problem with that?"

Stephen's bigger than me, but not by much. Matthew on the other hand is almost six feet tall and weighs around one hundred and seventy pounds, without an ounce of fat on him. He's not someone Stephen would want to have a problem with.

"Er, no," he replies nervously. "I was just thinking . . ."

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," Matthew says caustically. "You might strain yourself."

Stephen retreats to the far side of the classroom. Our gang all fall about giggling. What a prick!

It's been a weird couple of weeks. At least half of the other kids are still ignoring me. I'm not sure if any of the teachers have noticed. I'm pretty sure that Mr Ashton has. I don't know about the others. It's Wednesday. We'll finish for half term on Friday. I'm looking forward to it. Anthony and I have planned loads of things to do together.

We head into Mr Bentley's room for our maths class. I settle into my usual seat.

"Is it okay if I sit here?" Dean asks, nodding at the empty space next to me.

"Yeah, sure," I say casually.

Dean calls to Mr Bentley. "Sir, may I sit here please?"

"You may!" he responds. "Good idea!"

"That new kid is driving me mental," Dean growls, sitting down and getting his books out.

It's not a total surprise. Stephen Price is like a fussy owl, always sticking his beak in where it's not wanted. The incident with Matthew ten days ago is pretty typical. And he's such a know-all! He always has to have his say, even when it's obvious that he hasn't a clue what he's talking about. Worse still, he loses books, forgets homework and comes to class with pens that don't work, none of which is his fault, of course. He'd try the patience of a saint.

We're factorising trinomials. We haven't done it before, but it seems easy enough. We begin by working through half a dozen examples in a question and answer session. Then we're given an exercise to do, twenty-five of them. As usual, we start the exercise in class and have to complete it for homework. I get straight down to it, ploughing my way steadily through them. When the bell goes for morning break, I've done almost half the exercise. I glance across at Dean. He's only done five, and two of those are wrong.

"Don't you understand them?" I ask quietly, packing my things away.

"Nah, I don't get it at all," he says.

"I'll help you if you like," I suggest. "We could go to the library at lunchtime."

"I've got gym club," he says, grimacing. "No chance of you helping me after school, is there?"

"Yeah," I respond, "but where?"

"We could go to my place," he says. "I only live across the road."

"Yeah, okay," I agree, smiling, "after school then!"

Dean and I sit together for the rest of the day. Finally, classes are over. We make our way towards the school gate.

"So where d'you live?" I ask.

"Alexandra Square," he says casually.

That wasn't what I expected. The houses on Alexandra Square cost a fortune. They're about the same age as the ones on Grosvenor Terrace and are built in a similar style, with the same neo-Georgian sash windows and white rendering, but they're semi-detached and much larger. I knew Dean's parents must be fairly well off because they sent him to prep school. They must be doing seriously well to live there.

We walk up the drive. Dean lets us in. The house looks big from the outside. Inside it's huge, with beautiful high ceilings. Wow!

"What does your dad do?" I ask.

"Mum and dad are barristers," Dean says.

That makes sense. His parents are both front-line lawyers and they do earn serious money. We head up to his bedroom. That's huge too, way bigger than Claire's. It's not untidy exactly, but it has a sort of 'lived-in' look to it, an electric guitar propped up against a small amplifier occupying one corner; the walls adorned with posters of American rock bands.

"I didn't know you were into rock music," I say, looking round.

"Yeah, I love it, man!" he says, grinning.

"D'you like Razorlight?" I ask.

"They're okay," he says grudgingly. "I'm more into bands like Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chilli Peppers."

"They're ugly!" I protest.

"You would say that," he counters, still smiling. "Kurt Cobain wasn't ugly though," he adds, pointing to the Nirvana poster. "He was the best, man! It's a tragedy he died so young."

I study the poster. He's right, the blond guy in the centre, obviously Kurt, is absolutely stunning.

"How old was he?" I enquire.

"Twenty seven," he says, "the same as the others. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix; that's the age they all died."

Finding that he's interested in rock music is a bonus I hadn't expected, especially as it seems that he actually plays.

"Your guitar looks like the one that Alex Turner out of Arctic Monkeys plays," I say.

"Fender Stratocaster," he responds, "except that he probably uses a real one. Mine's just a cheap copy. Arctic Monkeys are okay. They write some good songs but their sound's too tinny."

"So don't you like any British bands?" I ask.

"Primal Scream, Manic Street Preachers," he offers. "I saw the Manics in the summer. They're fantastic live. Of course, back in the seventies, British bands were the dog's bollocks. You know, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Whitesnake, and Thin Lizzy of course. What a band they were!"

I'm gobsmacked. I had no idea he was into any of this. I'd love to talk some more, but we've got work to do.

"I guess we'd better get started," I suggest.

We get our maths books out and settle down at his desk. We begin working through the exercise. By the time we've completed the first five questions, the light has started to dawn.

"Oh, I get it now!" he says, grinning at me again. "Thanks, man! You explained it way better than Bentley did."

"Try doing up to number twelve on your own," I urge. "Then we can check them against what I've got."

I sit back and relax. This really is quite a place. It has so much more character than the modern house we live in. After fifteen minutes he's finished. We check through them. His answers all match mine.

"You should be able to do the rest now," I tell him.

"Yeah, thanks man!" he agrees. "I owe you." He pauses for a moment. "I owe you anyway," he continues. "If you hadn't told Broadhurst that I never joined in with the stuff Zav was doing, I'd have been right in the shit."

"I just told the truth, the same as you did," I say quietly. "I was surprised when you said you'd told Broadhurst everything."

"Dad told me I had to," he says, giving me a wry grin.

"So you talked to your dad about it?" I question, unable to imagine that I'd have done that.

"Yeah," he confirms. "Back when we were in that top year at prep school, Zav and I tried to recruit some younger kids to be part of our private army, another of Zav's crazy ideas. Well, the school wrote to Mum and Dad about it. It's the only time that Dad's really got angry with me. He said if I ever got in trouble again, he needed to hear about it from me before anyone else told him. So after that run-in with your sister and her mates, I had to tell him. It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. He never got angry, never even raised his voice. It might have been easier if he had. He was so disappointed. He said I'd let myself down. I felt so ashamed. Mum and Dad haven't brought me up to behave like that."

"So d'you get on with your dad?" I enquire.

"Oh, Dad's great," he says, smiling warmly. "We jam together all the time. It was him that got me into rock music. You should see him in his jeans and his Whitesnake tee-shirt! You'd never think he was a barrister. Sometimes he brings his guitar in here; sometimes we go downstairs so he can play piano. We go running together too. If the school had a cross-country team for our age, I'd probably be in it." He pauses for a moment. "I thought about joining an athletics club, but the local club's not much good. The nearest club with any good young runners is twenty miles away. It's too far to go with everything else we've got on."

"Oh, right," I say absently. "So was it your dad who told you to apologise?"

"He sort of suggested I should," he says quietly, "so did Broadhurst, but they never told me to. I just knew I needed to do it, yeah?"

"How did you become friends with Zav?" I ask, changing the subject.

"I guess he sort of picked me," he says quietly. "I've always been shy. He's just the opposite, always so sure of himself. Back when we were about eight, I thought he was wonderful, you know, really exciting to hang out with. I know he can be pretty horrible to some of the other kids, but he was always okay with me, so I stuck with him. I should have said something as soon as he started picking on you, but it'd have caused an argument so I kept my mouth shut and let him get on with it. I'm sorry. When you started answering back, he couldn't handle it at all, and after that run-in with Matthew, it was like he was obsessed. I tried talking to him, but he wouldn't listen, but that's Zav all over. When he saw you on your own on the playground, he just went charging in. I'd no idea what he was going to do. I should have stayed well away from it. I'm really sorry I didn't. I sort of told myself I needed to make sure he didn't do anything really stupid, but that's bollocks. He was way out of order and I shouldn't have had anything to do with it."

"But you told him as soon as he got back to school."

"Yeah. I was worried he might try . . . , you know, squaring it with me. That would have made things really difficult. But I guess he was never going to do that. He'll never admit he's in the wrong. Instead he started blaming me for us getting into trouble. So I told him to fuck off. From now on, the less I see of him the better. He's nothing but trouble."

"Does he live round here?" I ask.

"Nah, they've got this humongous house out in the country."

"How does he get here?"

"His mum works in town, she brings him in the mornings. He goes home on the bus. It takes him an hour."

"So have you been to his house then?"

"Yeah, I never went very often though. I didn't like going there. I was nine the first time I went. I'd hardly got through the door when his mum started telling me how her great grandfather was second cousin to the King of Spain. I mean, like anyone cares! And she keeps telling Zav how special he is because he's got royal blood and all this bollocks. Zav laps it up, of course. It's stupid! She's a legal secretary for fuck sake! That's it!"

"What's his dad like?"

"He started with nothing, went to the grammar school and got a scholarship to Cambridge. Now he's the finance director of one of the big electronics companies, earns bazillions. He always seemed alright to me, but he and Zav don't get on. He expects Zav to do what he did." He lowers his voice. "I probably shouldn't say this, but Zav told me his mum and dad argue about everything, like his mum wanted to send him to one of these posh boarding schools so that he could mix with, you know, the 'right' people, but his dad said the Grammar School had been good enough for him and that was where Zav had to go."


"Of course, he is chairman of the school's fund-raising committee."

"Sounds like Flashman's father," I comment.

"What?" Dean asks.

"Flashman's the evil bully in 'Tom Brown's Schooldays'," I tell him. "Flashman's father gave the school lots of money so his son was allowed to get away with all sorts of shit."

"Oh, it's not like that at all," Dean says firmly. "Zav's dad knows all the governors and the staff and he wants the school to be strict, like it was when he was there. Zav would have really copped it when he got sent home." He pauses. "Of course, his mum would have taken his side, she always does. I bet there was a right row over it."

"Oh, I see," I say, trying to take it all in. "So is Zav an only child?"

"Nah, he's got two younger sisters. They're vile, you know, really spoilt, especially the older one. Acts like she's a princess or something."

I'm starting to get the picture. I often wondered why Zav behaved the way he does, but I'd never really thought about what his family were like. It's not an excuse, but at least I'm beginning to understand some of the reasons.

"That's not good," I say, shaking my head. "I'd hate it if my mum and dad argued like that."

"It's totally screwed him up," Dean agrees. "There's no way I'd want to swap places with him."

I head for home with a spring in my step. Dean and I have far more in common than I could have imagined. We're going to be friends. I just know we are.

It's Monday morning. I'm on my bike, heading to Anthony's house. It's a sunny day, and still warm for late October. I've never cycled through the town centre before. Mum would have a fit if she knew. I don't care. I'm nearly fourteen. I know what I'm doing.

We're going to visit a Tudor manor house which has several 'priest holes', hiding places where Catholic priests could hide following the Reformation back in the sixteenth century. Anthony's been before. He says it's fascinating. I can hardly wait to see it.

I'll admit that I'm a bit worried about cycling there. It's fifteen miles away. I've never cycled anywhere like that far before, but Anthony says we'll give ourselves plenty of time so we can take it steady. And I'm excited. Going somewhere like that without Mum and Dad taking me is a first. There's a sense of adventure, a feeling of independence. I'm spreading my wings.

The journey to the house involves some stiff climbs. It's quite tough. Even so, we make it in plenty of time, and sit on a bench outside to eat our lunch while we wait for the place to open. The guided tour is every bit as interesting as Anthony promised; I'm captivated by it. The priest holes are so carefully hidden. The guy who designed it all must have been a genius.

The ride home, largely downhill, is much easier. Almost before we know it, we're swinging off the main road and onto the narrow side streets that lead to Grosvenor Terrace.

"Are you coming in?" Anthony asks, smiling. "It's only ten to four."

"Sure," I say, smiling back.

I lock up my bike and follow him inside. I can't think of a better way to finish our day together.

It's Saturday. The half term break is almost over. It's been the best I can ever remember. I've spent most of my time with Anthony. We've cycled all over the place, visiting museums, galleries, churches, historic houses; places I didn't even know existed. Going by bike meant I could only take a small sketch pad, but I drew as much as I could, and I've made a list of places I want to go back to.

Most times we ended our trip back at Anthony's house. I don't need to tell you what we've been doing. Let's just say that I can't imagine anything better.

I've been to Dean's house a couple of times too. Talking, listening to CD's, watching videos; it's been great. And I've listened to him play. He says he's just learning, but he sounds pretty good to me. I wouldn't say we were close friends just yet, but we're definitely getting there.

I still think he's hot. I'm not going to do anything about it though. He's obviously comfortable with me being gay, but I'm not sure how comfortable he'd be if I tried anything like that. It's not worth the risk. Anthony keeps me more than happy as far as that's concerned. And what would happen if he found out? He might not like me going with someone else. It could ruin everything.

Anthony's coming to our house today. Mum always likes to know who my friends are. If I didn't invite him, she'd start asking questions. So I've asked him to come over, but I'm not at all sure how it's going to go. His appearance might put her off before he's even opened his mouth. But it's got to be done. Anthony's the best friend I've ever had. She'll just have to get used to the idea.

He arrives just after half past eleven. He's wearing skin tight black jeans that sit very low on his hips, red 1950's style baseball boots and a grey hoodie, which he takes off as soon as he gets indoors. Under it is a grey and white hooped muscle shirt. It's very short and tight, riding up when he moves to reveal several inches of his boxer shorts, the name CALVIN KLEIN emblazoned on the waistband. He still has the pink streaks in his hair, and the earring, of course. I can see straight away that Mum doesn't approve.

Dad, on the other hand, takes to him immediately. They talk animatedly about art. Anthony is so confident, so articulate. He talks to Dad as though they were equals. Dad doesn't seem to mind at all. Mum's face tells a different story. Almost inevitably, the conversation turns to what we've been doing during the holiday and the places we've visited. Once again, Dad is totally relaxed about it. Mum looks like she's about to have kittens, especially when she finds out that I've been cycling through the town centre.

After lunch, Anthony and I head up to my room. Everything's quiet. Claire's gone round to Natasha's house. Mum and Dad are safely ensconced in the lounge.

"Actually, there's something I want to show you," I say quietly, retrieving my 'special' sketch pad from its hiding place.

I hand it to him. He opens it up, his eyes widening. "Wow!" he says, grinning. "Not too many people would have seen Harry Potter like that! You have been using your imagination!" He begins to flick through. "Very impressive!" he comments. "These are really good. Who's this?"

"Oh that's Seamus, Harry's room-mate," I tell him.

He moves on a couple of pages. "Wow! Who is that?" he demands excitedly. "He is hot!"

"His name's Alex Pettyfer," I say quietly. "He played Tom in the new production of 'Tom Brown's Schooldays'. It was on telly last Christmas. Didn't you see it?"

"No," he admits. "I don't watch the telly much."

"It was brilliant," I breathe.

He turns to the final picture. "Wow! Now that is super-hot!" he says, smirking. "Very naughty though, you'll need to be very careful who sees it."

"I went to see his new film back in the summer," I tell him, putting the sketch pad back where it came from. "It was crap. A really stupid story and you didn't even get to see much of him. He was wearing, like, combat gear the whole time."

"Shame!" Anthony sympathises.

It's nearly five o'clock. "Time I was going," Anthony says. "I'm supposed to be home by six."

We make our way downstairs. Dad meets us in the hall.

"You on your way?" he asks, smiling.

"Yeah," Anthony confirms. "I need to get back."

"Well thanks for coming over," Dad says warmly, "it's been great meeting you. You must come over again."

"Thanks!" Anthony responds, giving Dad his cutest smile.

Moments later, he's on his way. I close the front door.

"He's quite a character," Dad says supportively, "obviously very bright."

"Yeah, he is," I agree.

"I don't think your mum's quite so sure about him," he warns, lowering his voice. "It's not a problem. She'll get over it."

"Thanks, Dad," I say appreciatively.

After around ten minutes, I'm summoned into the kitchen.

"So how did you meet him?" Mum demands.

"At Junior Arts Club," I say calmly.

"So why does he dress like that?"

"Dunno, he just does."

"Well, I hope you don't think you can go around looking like that!"

"No, of course not."

"And he's too full of himself by half."

"That's what I used to think. He's okay when you get to know him. He's a superb artist and very clever. In Year Eight, he's top in just about everything."

"So he's younger than you?"

"Yeah, but only a few months. He was thirteen back at the start of term."

"Why have you stopped being friends with Andrew and Mark?" she asks, changing tack. "You always got on so well."

I'm tempted to tell her the real reason, but that would not be a good idea.

"Because they're not interested in anything I do," I explain. "They do their stuff and I do mine."

"Oh, I see," she says uncertainly. "So what do Anthony's parents do?"

"His dad's the creative director for an advertising agency."

"What about his mum?"

"She lives in the States. Anthony hasn't seen her since he was three."

"Well, that explains a lot," Mum says, clearly signalling her disapproval. What she'd say if I'd told her that Anthony lives with his dad and his dad's boyfriend I can't imagine. "Well, you just be careful," she continues. "I don't want you going around with any bad influences."

"Anthony is not a bad influence," I say firmly.

We have dinner almost in silence. There's tension in the air. Mum and Dad have had words. It must have been about Anthony, Mum saying she didn't like him and Dad saying she was over-reacting and not to worry about it. After clearing away and loading the dishwasher, I retreat to my bedroom. I stretch out on the bed, mentally replaying the day's events. I guess it could have gone worse. There's a tap on the door.

"Come in!" I call.

Claire appears, closing the door behind her.

"Why did you invite Anthony to come over?" she asks, parking herself on the chair. "You must have known how Mum would react."

"I didn't have much choice, did I?" I counter. "We hang out just about all the time. She was bound to find out sooner or later. Then she'd have wanted to know why I'd never said anything. It wasn't that bad anyway. Dad likes him."

"And why aren't you hanging out with Mark and Andrew these days?" she demands. "You used to be inseparable. You don't even travel on the bus with them anymore."

"Remember when we had that run in out on the playground?" I ask. "Well, Broadhurst wanted to talk to them about it, you know, to find out what had been going on. Afterwards, they were really snotty with me, like it was my fault."

"Really?" she asks. "Why?"

"I'm not sure," I respond, "but Anthony reckons Broadhurst would have bollocked them for not standing up for me. Anyway, they've not spoken to me since."

"Hmmph!" Claire snorts. "They are such babies! It's about time they grew up!" She pauses for a second. "Is it right that you've been hanging out with the tall skinny kid?"

"Dean?" I query. "Yeah, we started hanging out a couple of weeks ago. He's alright."

"So how did that happen?"

"When Zav came back to school, he was moved to Mr Harrison's group. A kid called Stephen Price was moved to ours, so he sat next to Dean. But Stephen's a pain in the arse. He was driving Dean up the wall, so he asked if he could sit next to me instead."

"But isn't he Zav's friend?" Claire questions.

"Ex-friend," I correct. "They had a right bust-up. They're not even speaking to each other now."

"Well just take care, yeah?" she urges. "I don't want you getting hurt again."

"I will," I assure her. "It's cool, honestly."

She makes her way out. I lie on my bed, smiling. I'm very lucky to have a sister who cares about me like Claire does.

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